Bronx Zoo’s Happy the elephant is unlawfully imprisoned, lawsuit claims

An animal rights group sued the Bronx Zoo Tuesday in an effort to make sure one of the zoo’s elephants can live up to her name.

The Nonhuman Rights Project contends Happy — a 47-year-old Asian elephant who is kept in isolation — has been unlawfully imprisoned at the zoo, and petitioned a State Supreme Court judge for a writ of habeas corpus in its lawsuit. Steven M. Wise, the group’s founder and director, said elephants her age need to walk more than 20 miles a day and have interaction with groups. The services are not provided by the zoo, he said, thus denying her “common law right to bodily liberty.” 

“She doesn’t belong to a social group. Her autonomy is thwarted daily. This has got to stop,” he said in a statement. 

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny said, “The Nonhuman Rights Project is exploiting the Bronx Zoo elephants to advance their own failing cause in the courts as they put forth ludicrous legal arguments and lies about our elephants, facilities and staff.”

Happy was captured in the wild, brought to the United States, and moved around to various locations before she arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with a companion elephant named Grumpy, the suit said. In 2002, Grumpy was attacked by two other elephants living at the zoo — Maxine and Patty — and was euthanized. 

The zoo separated Happy from Maxine and Patty and brought in another elephant named Sammie to provide her with companionship. In 2006, however, Sammie was euthanized following kidney failure. That same year the zoo shut down its captive elephant exhibit and Happy now “spends most of her time indoors in a holding facility lined with elephant cages,” according to the suit.

The Nonhuman Rights Project said Happy is the only elephant to pass the mirror test, which is used by animal psychologists to determine if a nonhuman has the ability to self-recognize and shows a “higher form of empathy.” The suit seeks to move the elephant to an animal sanctuary.

In May, the state Court of Appeals ruled in a 5-0 vote that chimpanzees are not legal persons in a similar lawsuit filed by the Nonhumans Rights Project. However, the judges said that legislators should work to resolve the issue.